This is something I come back to repeatedly, and it has increasing importance as web usage and the conveyance of ideas by text increases.
It’s something David Lodge mentioned in Nice Work. The concept is easy to grasp.
As we speak or write something we take an idea or a thought or a concept and encode it in words. Once encoded it is left to the listener or reader to decode it. This decoding can be different to the original encoding.
Take a simple phrase “The door is open.” Now decode it. “Come in”, “Close the door”, “Come by any time”, all valid interpretations dependant on place, time, context and often on inflection of voice. In spoken English inflection is very important.
In written English and in particular in online written English the inflection is simply not there.
This is of massive importance as it means that people can and will decode to massive misinterpretation. It’s something I strive to avoid, often unsuccessfully. The issue online is often the “game” of one upmanship in which someone genuinely trying to seek a frank and fair exchange of opinions will end up being shouted down by those who seek to score points. It’s my personal opinion that while the Internet will foster live debate it will not resolve debate, not yet, it’s too young and immature.
So what can we do? We can not assume to decode in the most prejudicial way possible. Take comments as they are written, not as we would like to perceive them to be in order to “win” something. Try to understand others rather than beat them. Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Be open, be frank, be forthright. Seek understanding, seek clarification. Don’t dismiss but rather seek inclusion.
And when we decode, look to the positive decodings where we can discuss further, not the negative decodings which start another pointless online argument.